Teaching About Gender and Sexuality in Islamic Schools

The middle school and high school years are a time of growing pains for many children (and the adults in their lives).

As students move from childhood to adulthood they have to pass through the difficulties of adolescence. In this delicate time, young adults are rapidly absorbing and assimilating information all around them from parents, teachers, friends, TV, internet, and society at large. The challenge that no one wants to tackle, however, is one of the most important and foundational in the life of a young adult – relationships with the opposite sex.

At home, conversations around this topic are shut down before they even start – “Don’t talk to boys. You are going to school to study!”

At school, the teacher shuts down the discussion as well – “Boyfriends and girlfriends are haram!” Enough said.

So, what happens?

When a responsible adult does not want to address the topic of gender relations, someone out there will try and fill that void in the life of the young adult. . .

Curiosity will lead the young person to get answers to these questions from all kinds of sources.

And some of the more bold ones may actually experiment with and try and figure out this boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. Making mistakes in life is character building and the way you handle and grow through challenges really defines who you are. But unfortunately, some mistakes are such that once made they change the direction of your life in dramatic ways.

Though proper relationships with the opposite sex are vital and ultimately lead to “half our deen,” very few adults will take the time to really elucidate this phrase. What does it mean? Where should one learn what this means?

From the teacher.

The teacher is not just an instructor, but a role model, a mentor, a guide.

It’s not just about teaching the subject at hand but helping the young adult walk through life in a way that helps him or her attain inner virtue and be in the favor of their Lord. It is incumbent on the teacher to explain matters that are necessary for outward religious practices as well as inward spiritual matters.

What would this require of our teachers? – To teach about gender and sexuality.

The emotional and physical changes that a young adult begins to experience at this age are very normal and nothing to be shut down either at home or school, but rather to be framed within the example of our Prophet, peace and blessings upon him.

The goal should not be to simply counter and respond to specific issues around dating, homosexuality and other gender and sexuality issues that are prevalent in society. It should be to develop a strong narrative around human relationships from within our tradition. This strong narrative should be something the young adult recognizes. What was the relationship of the Prophet Muhammad with his uncle, his grandfather, and his cousins? What was the relationship he had with the Companions?

By talking about the relationship the Prophet had with these individuals, students should be able to connect to their own relationships with family and friends.

And what should be highlighted in this narrative?
Love, honor, mercy, understanding, and sacrifice.

Allah revealed the Quran to the people of Mecca by first describing Himself, by talking about morality and ethics, by essentially kindling a love for Islam in the hearts of the early Muslims. Rules and laws came later when the early Muslim community settled in Medina.

In the same way, teachers should work to highlight love, honor, mercy, understanding and sacrifice in the Prophet’s relationships with his family and friends. And then introduce the rules, regulations, and responsibilities we have towards other human beings. It all makes sense then.

Next, take this narrative and move into gender relations, specifically the husband-wife relationship, with examples such as:

  1. Khadijah and the Prophet
  2. Aisha and the Prophet
  3. The Prophet’s daughter Zainab and her husband Abu l-As

How were love, honor, mercy, understanding, and sacrifice actualized in these marriages?
When the purity of these emotions are made evident to the students through Khadijah’s devotion to the cause of her husband, Aisha’s fun and youthful interactions with the Prophet, and the affection between Zainab and her childhood sweetheart, students will be better able to understand their identities as male or female individually AND in relation to the opposite sex.

Depth and purity in relationships such as these are possible when a person has followed proper conduct with the opposite sex and guarded their dress and interactions. The rules of gender relations will be more acceptable to these young minds if the narrative presented is strong and connects to their hearts. The hope is that the narrative will also be strong enough to counter the incessant pressure that these young individuals face regularly.

How should we start writing such a narrative?
Read and listen to MANY different presentations about the Prophet and his relationships with his family and friends. Pay close attention to how he interacted with his wives. Different writers and different speakers shed different shades of meaning on to his life, helping to form a comprehensive picture. You could start with books such as:

  1. Fethullah Gulen’s The Messenger of God: Muhammad – An Analysis of the Prophet’s Life
  2. Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet
  3. Martin Lings’ Muhammad

Each of these three scholars has a nuanced presentation of the Prophet’s life. By weaving together their descriptions, and of course making sure to honor all the details of the Prophet’s life, you can work to bring these relationships to life for your students. Once their hearts are captured, the rest will follow naturally. InshaAllah.

Reem Javed

About Reem Javed

After completing graduate studies in Biochemistry, Reem Javed returned to school to participate in the Zaytuna College project. She concurrently completed the ITEP certificate during her second year at the school. Inspired by the dedication and work of the instructors at Zaytuna College, she intends to continue with graduate studies in Character Education and Curriculum Development for Muslim Educational Institutions.
Click here to read more posts by Reem.

  1. Great approach to handling sexuality and gender differences and relationships among the growing youth. I know that these issue are considered “taboo” in many households and even in most of the Islamic communities. I think capturing the heart of the youth by teaching about our beloved prophet and his relations with his wives, cousins, friends would enlighten the youth in the right way. Moreover, I think avoiding the topic will worsen matters and lead the youth to seek answers wrongfully!

  2. “Depth and purity in relationships such as these are possible when a person has followed proper conduct with the opposite sex and guarded their dress and interactions.”
    but what ARE these? as a teacher and as a community member, i am really struggling with what the proper conduct is supposed to be. When i was learning Islam, it was very clear – modesty and minimal contact with the opposite sex so as not to stir up feelings of attraction…and i could “get” this, having grown up as a teen in various non-muslim setttings where interactions between teh sexes was always mixed in with a good dose of sizing each other up, flirting, and trying to stir interest/get attention….nowadays though, i find that “rules” are “changing” – in many muslim contexts there is a lot of interaction between teh sexes, very casual and very flirty too, with lots of chit chat and laughter. Lowering the gaze seems like a phrase from another era… I feel like when i try to practice these things – much less instruct youth in them – i come across as a prude, as old-fashioned, as just silly. I find that even many scholars no longer want to touch this subject. so I am wondering what exactly you mean when you talk about “proper conduct” because what i see is that the way muslims act with the opp. sex is the same as how non-muslims act, in terms of daily interaction. yes there is no open pda and so on, but short of that, a group of muslim youth acts the same as a group of non-muslim youth….except for direct body contact…please offer some advice as to what we are supposed to be teaching here…

  3. Salam,

    Thanks for your question. A person’s conduct is more likely to change when he/she understands the reason for the change. The goal of the teacher is to help develop this understanding and present the narrative of human relationships in such a way that the student appreciates the beauty of the relationship and will move away from conduct that may be questionable.

    As far as what a teacher should be teaching, this blog has some initial thoughts on how to do research and write class lessons on human relationships. Authors such as the ones mentioned provide us with snapshots into the Prophet’s life (peace and blessings upon him), as if we were there.
    Picking 4-5 different authors that talk about the story of Khadijah and the Prophet, for example, and capturing both the historical details as well as the emotional aspects of the relationship would be a place to start. If you have heard Sr. Eiman Sidky speak, when she talks about the Prophet you feel her connection to his story. That is what you want to try and emulate but for an entire semester. Her presentations are specifically designed for weekend seminars.

    Focusing on conduct is not always the most beneficial strategy. This comes back to the idea of taking on rules before understanding the reality. Depending on the age group and school environment, students in junior high and high school need more than just rules. They want to know the reality behind those rules and the narratives above can be designed to provide this.

    You will of course have to make connections between the narrative and the conduct that you observe, but in more subtle ways. For example, Zainab was devoted to her husband and believed in him – This devotion and belief does not develop with giving up on a relationship at the first sign of difficulty and/or switching partners frequently. This would be an opportunity to skillfully weave in the lack of devotion between husband and wife in today’s context.

    Another example could include the adab with which Khadijah interacted with men in her business and the adab with which she approached the Prophet. Connections can be made with her purity of conduct and the strength of her marital bond to her husband.

    Reading, doing research, and listening to such analyses of various speakers can be beneficial in building a comprehensive set of lessons that connects the narrative of the Prophet’s life and relationships to our modern setting.

    In regards to day-to-day conduct at school – Yes, at times, it can seem like students could be more guarded in their conversations and behavior. Yes, it is the responsibility of the teacher to make sure this does not get out of hand. And yes, at times, you have to directly address it. Part of that is helping them to understand what some of these phrases associated with conduct mean. Phrases like “lowering the gaze” don’t always connect with this generation. This has be connected to their daily activities as well. For example, when talking to the opposite gender, conversations should be primarily about work and school. This is also part of lowering the gaze. Talking about movies, music, and other such topics just opens conversations into a very grey area. Texting the opposite gender for reasons that are not necessarily related to work or school, or involve contacting the opposite gender very late in the day is probably also not OK. Again, this is part of lowering the gaze on the part of both the male and female. And all of this is related to each individual’s intention in the interaction as well and the particular situation. But the goal is to strengthen the student’s understanding through the example of the Prophet rather than addressing each individual act. When a person is able to come to these conclusions on their own, it means a lot more and has a more significant impact in their behavior.

    It is difficult to respond without making the post too long, but hopefully that helps.

  4. Pingback: Sex Ed in Islamic Schools « black board, white chalk

  5. I came across this excellent article that highlights some issues related to this topic and wanted to share it with you all immediately: http://www.islamicinsights.com/features/home-and-family/instilling-modesty-in-children.html

    What stands out for me is when the author says: Modesty is a thematic approach to life, and if a person is modest in speech, gestures, and conduct, the clothing will reflect this.
    I think this is often where we go wrong: we teach modesty as a few rules here and there or a few tips….or a few “don’t”s – but it is a whole worldview…that even follows us into the most private spheres and moments, for we are never alone. First, we are with Allah- and we ought to be shy in front of Him; and we are also surrounded by jinn and Angels. The jinn take advantage of lewdness and lack of modesty; the Angels flee such situations. So we need to teach our youth this whole aspect of things as well.
    One thing I heard a scholar once say is that one of the reasons that masturbation, for instance something taught as positive in the public school system – is not allowed in Islam is that it is not something done alone – the jinn are involved and active partners. Yet, we rarely bring up the whole ghayb aspect of sexuality. We need to discuss these things with our youth. They are real, after all.

  6. Great and timely discussion. To add to our thoughts, here is an interesting clip of a conversation on a related issue:

    wondering what you all think of the ideas expressed here and how we can trigger spiritual as opposed to sexual maturity in the child. what is spiritual maturity and how can schools fill up with spiritual atmospheres and a rich diet of spirituality to counter the very rich sexual diet that is being provided on the outside?

Leave your thoughts